July 19, 2019

The (Uncanny) Valley of the Dolls

“In an enormous Goodwill in Seattle, the horologist (a watchmaker and expert in related devices) Brittany “Nico” Cox and I sorted through a sad and somewhat creepy assortment of discarded and possibly once-loved dolls, hoping to find one with large, realistic glass eyes. Not merely a watchmaker, Nico specializes in restoring automata—clockwork-powered dolls and figures meant to mimic life. In gardens and grottoes of the Renaissance, moving statues became toys of the wealthy and would capture the popular imagination but by the 18th-century were incredibly complex horological wonders. Unlike robots, automata did not have practical use. They were meant to inspire both awe at our technological prowess and fear at the strange magic that many believed made them work.

Nico and I talked about how we were both a little mortified at the thought of having to smash a porcelain head to extract the eyes but were determined to get just the right ones for our deeply sacred task. I had come to Seattle in the hopes of learning something about the supernatural roots of artificial life, and in the days spent in Nico’s studio, I hoped that we might make a simple automaton.

Unfortunately, none of the dolls had the eyes we needed. Most were either too small or ridiculously large like Japanese anime characters’. There was something lifelike about all of them, though, and their haunted quality would take hold of me for the time Nico and I were together. Our last effort found us in Archie McPhee, a Seattle novelty shop that sells a huge assortment of strange and unique objects: rubber chickens, masks, plastic animals, gag gifts. On a shelf at the far end of the store, we discovered a box of dozens of eyes in assorted sizes made from a dark, hazy glass. After much sorting and searching, we found three sets of eyes that had the personality we were after: not quite lifelike but having the quality of, dare I say it, a soul. There was also something sad and disquieting about them. Life seemed possible within them, even though I knew rationally they were just pieces of colored glass.”

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